Beef and sheep farmers can cope with the summer dry in Marlborough by growing legumes like lucerne, enhanced with complementary grasses.
That was the message to a farmer audience of 80 at a dryland legumes workshop at the Marlborough Research Centre in Blenheim on Monday night.
Chris Dawkins, of The Pyramid in the lower Waihopai Valley, said he had sought a high quality, late spring/early summer legume to meet the specifications of a lamb supply contract. Like many Marlborough farms, The Pyramid experienced a water deficit for at least five months of the year.
An alternative to white clover was arrowleaf clover, a temperate annual legume which bridged the gap between the sub clover peak in late November and lucerne, said Mr Dawkins. Lambs were weaned onto arrowleaf, which started flowering early December.
Seddon farmer Tony Turnbull said that at first, establishing and growing lucerne was frustrating, but by giving attention to detail, he gained significant benefits. Ewes were in better condition, weaning was nine days earlier and lambs showed gains. With lambs gone, weaner calves were then grazed on lucerne, giving improved profits.
"Lucerne generates opportunities," he said. "Yes, expensive to set up, but the real rewards are there if done properly."
Fraser Avery, of Bonavaree, west of Grassmere, said a mix of lucerne, plantain and prairie ryegrass resulted in lambs gaining up to 500 grams. His father, Doug Avery, said the mix allowed plantain and prairie to take up nitrogen fixed by lucerne and helped overcome animal health problems associated with grazing pure lucerne.
Derrick Moot, of Lincoln University, described lucerne as the "king of forages".
Judiciously sowing clover cultivars with different flowering dates should be the aim, said Dr Moot. Essentials were to understand competition between grass and legumes, use a range of legume species and cultivars, avoid nitrogen fertiliser on grass/legume pastures and build a large seed bank in the first year then manage to maintain it.
Warwick Lissaman, of Breach Oak, near Seddon, described trials with gland and balansa clovers. Among the earliest flowering clovers, gland was very winter active and best suited to post-root-raking, track establishment and on drought-prone northwest facing slopes, he said. Also winter-active, balansa was suited to wet areas where subterranean clover did not survive.
A trial area planting of gland, balansa, cocksfoot, phalaris and plantain plus subterranean clover improved stock returns by $183/ha, said Mr Lissaman. "The increase in lamb live weights and better condition of ewes were real pluses."
David and Jo Grigg, of Tempello, said September to November was a key period.
"The season has a big impact, but good pasture management is vital," Mr Grigg said.
He emphasised the need for subdivision so stock could be rotated to enhance pasture management.
Jo Grigg said red-legged earth mites could damage clover production and were being closely monitored.
Blenheim-based agricultural consultant Ian Blair said legumes were the answer to the Marlborough dry climate.
"Shallow rooting white clover struggles to survive dry summers so new, deeper rooting varieties need to be tried. And varieties can be mixed to fill in time slots," he said.
October to December, when prices were highest, was the crucial time for lamb finishing, said Mr Blair. Lucerne filled the need for a feed providing a 300-400g target weight gain.
- The Marlborough Express